Posted: February 6, 2009
William Voegeli offers a rare view into the realities of public finance and especially the way in which entitlements are edging out discretionary spending ("Reforming Big Government," Fall 2008). In their frustration, politicians may well escalate their attacks on higher earners now—class warfare being a favorite substitute for the reform that Voegeli so sensibly calls for. It's important to note that the distribution of who pays taxes, and what share of those taxes, is different today than what it was in the 1980s. Then, because of inflationary bracket creep, many Americans found their income subject to high tax rates. In 1980 the top 1% of earners paid 17% of the tax. In 2005, that group paid closer to 40%.
In terms of tax distribution our current period is not like the late 1970s, when out-of-power Republicans were looking for a new issue. Today is more like the 1930s, when the income tax was a "class tax" shouldered by a very few higher earners. Franklin Roosevelt found the wealthy to be an easy target. Before reelection in 1936 he crowed at Madison Square Garden, "I welcome their hatred," and said that the forces of selfishness would discover in his second term that they had "met their master." As a result of such hostility, and the policies that go with it, the Depression lasted longer than it needed to.
Another six months of our own recession, and the American stage will be set for more such drama. What a waste.
New York, NY
William Voegeli does an excellent job of demonstrating conservatives' failure to shrink the welfare state. But his ultimate conclusion, that the Right should simply surrender and accept the welfare state in exchange for a vague hope that liberals will be willing to restrain its growth and make it more efficient, is mistaken.
First, there is no evidence to suggest that if conservatives agree not to try to roll back the welfare state, liberals will agree to restrain its growth. More likely, conservatives will simply become involved in a bidding war, in which they inevitably will look like the less caring party. Having surrendered on principle, they will be left with little more than arguments about efficiency or limited resources. That sort of green eye-shades conservatism seldom stands up against the Left's call for greater compassion. When a government program is in place, it exists for better or worse. When conservatives concede a role for government on an issue, the precedent exists, for better or worse.
Second, the damage done by the welfare state is not just a matter of the amount of money spent. Many of the programs themselves are harmful, creating incentives that encourage people to behave in ways that ultimately harm both themselves and society. What's more, to the extent that the welfare state expands, civil society contracts. There is ample evidence, for example, that increases in government welfare reduce private charitable giving. Social Security diminishes opportunities for private retirement savings. Medicaid and the State Children's Health Insurance Program (SCHIP) displace private health insurance. Rolling back the welfare state would do more than preserve scarce resources—it would provide a positive benefit to society.
Finally, it is important to note that Voegeli ignores any consideration of liberty. In the end, that is what politics is all about. Barry Goldwater used to say, "The conservative's first concern will always be, am I maximizing freedom." The welfare state leaves us all less free, and therefore deserves to be opposed on principle.
And principle matters. Martin Luther King, Jr., once said, "There comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor political, nor popular—but one must take it simply because it is right." In attempting to roll back the welfare state, conservatives may not be any more successful in the future than they have been in the past (though how will they know unless they try), but they should stand for limited government and individual liberty simply because it is the right thing to do.
William Voegeli replies:
Amity Shlaes and Michael Tanner offer important thoughts about the choices that lie ahead for liberals and conservatives, respectively. I join Shlaes in her apprehensions that liberals, restored to power, will have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. The show-trial congressional hearings on the financial industry directed by Rep. Torquemada Waxman even before the November elections indicate the enduring appeal of the idea that wealth causes poverty, and malefactors of great wealth cause economic downturns. The posse's determined but pointless hunt for the villains who caused the current recession will make the restoration of prosperity more difficult, and financial regulatory reforms that are beneficial rather than gratifyingly vindictive less likely.
Tanner's critique of my argument raises the question of whether conservatives can learn when they need to. Specifically, it raises the question of whether there can or cannot be libertarian prudence and statesmanship.
Principle matters, he says. This is true, but principle is not all that matters. In addition to the devotion to wise and good principles, statesmanship requires a subtle understanding of all the relevant political realities on the ground, which will inform patient and shrewd efforts to realize those principles in the ways and to the extent that those realities allow. The more distant goal is to change the political realities to make them increasingly amenable to the highest principles.
William Lloyd Garrison and Abraham Lincoln both believed that slavery was evil. For Garrison this principle was a necessary and sufficient guide to political action, while for Lincoln, who aspired to be a statesman rather than an agitator, it was merely necessary. Doing good about slavery required, additionally, coming to grips with the complex political realities of America in the 1850s. Feeling good about opposing it required only the incessant denunciation of slavery, and of the Constitution for countenancing it, and Garrison eagerly denounced both.
Tanner criticizes me for urging conservatives to "simply surrender," calling on them, instead, to "stand for limited government and individual liberty simply because it is the right thing to do." The world is complex, however, not simple. Last year, Tanner's colleague at the Cato Institute, Tyler Cowen, described the "paradox of libertarianism": "The more wealth we have, the more government we can afford." An avalanche of evidence from around the world shows that liberty promotes prosperity, and prosperity promotes the growth of government. Cowen calls this a "package deal," and says, "libertarianism is in an intellectual crisis today" because its response to this reality "is simply to wish that the package deal we face [wasn't] a package deal." Neither wishing nor the proud commitment to political irrelevance will change the fact that, in Cowen's words, "the welfare state is here to stay, whether we like it or not."
By contrast, Tanner's political advice rests on an unfalsifiable proposition: the welfare state will crumble if conservatives push against it hard enough, so the continuing existence and growth of the welfare state proves only that conservatives have been slacking off and need to redouble their efforts. The point of such a proposition is that it can never be disproven, of course, but Cowen's paradox strongly argues that the more urgent need is for conservatives to reassess intelligently the long, twilight struggle against the welfare state, rather than comfortably reiterate all their old talking points against it with increased vehemence. I agree with Tanner: in choosing whether to push harder for the quixotic goal of abolishing the welfare state, or think harder about how to reform it in order to reconcile it with the preservation of liberty, prosperity, and American self-government, conservatives should ask the question posed by Barry Goldwater: am I maximizing freedom?
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John Derbyshire's approving use of the word "Islamophobe" has tipped his hand in a profound way ("When Worlds Collide," Fall 2008). "Islamophobia" is a phony word, phonetically linked to "homophobia," conjured up by British Muslims in order to forestall any questions or concerns about Islam.
Mr. Derbyshire dwells only on Islamic art and literature, and implies we would have been better off had Charles Martel lost the Battle of Tours in 722. That's like saying Europe would have been better off had Hitler won his war because the Nazis advocated health consciousness and organic foods.
Roxborough Park, CO
It is interesting that John Derbyshire does not believe that there is a cultural conflict between the West and Islam.
Mohammed is the most popular name for boys in Britain, and 19% of British Muslims believe terror is a legitimate political weapon. Birthrates are below replacement throughout Europe. The overall European Union birthrate is around 1.5 per woman. In Saudi Arabia, it is around 4. The average age in the E.U. is around 40; in Gaza it is around 15.
I'm not sure I'd be as complacent as Derbyshire. Islamic terrorism did not stop with September 11, and has already knocked out entire Western states (Spain, for example) from pursuing the War on Terror. As the years go by, the non-Muslim population of Europe will age and the Muslim population will stay very young.
I suspect Mr. Derbyshire will be in for a lot of unpleasant surprises over the next ten years.
Scott A. Joseph, M.D.
John Derbyshire replies:
"Islamophobe" is a handy word for a clearly identifiable group: those who, as I said in my review, are "keen to tell us about the fundamental, irreducible wickedness of Islam and its founder." Things must have names, and this one seems apt to me.
The rest of Mr. Petteys's letter must refer to someone else's review. Not only did I not "dwell on Islamic art and literature," I barely mentioned them. Not only did I not "imply that we would have been better off had Charles Martel lost the Battle of Tours," I jeered at David Levering Lewis for implying it!
Similarly with Dr. Joseph, who asserts that "John Derbyshire does not believe that there is a cultural conflict between the West and Islam." Here is what I actually wrote: "the West is engaged in a critical civilizational conflict with the Muslim world. Whether or not we truly are in such a conflict is a large question all by itself. (My opinion: no.)" ‘‘Cultural'' is not a synonym for ‘‘critical civilizational.''
Joseph goes on to call me "complacent" about mass Muslim immigration into European countries. That's odd: the word "immigration" does not occur in my review. In fact my review has nothing to say about this matter at all.
I think mass Third-World immigration, including mass Muslim immigration, into Western societies is a simply terrible idea, and have said so countless times in many forums. The books I was assigned did not deal with this topic, though, and so neither did my review. People with bees in their bonnets—obsessive Islamophobes, for example—will see what they want to see, but that is not my fault.
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Natural Rights and History
In his review of Paul Gottfried's new book on postwar American conservatism, Douglas Jeffrey calls Gottfried's analysis "ultimately irrelevant" because it supposedly defends a "historicist" approach to the study of the Right ("Confused About Conservatism," Fall 2008). For Jeffrey, the attack on what Gottfried dubs "value conservatism" not only serves to undermine belief in the American Founding's highest tradition—the philosophy of natural rights—it also does nothing to contribute to an assault on conservatism's real enemy (as Jeffrey understands it)—the danger of moral relativism. Apparently, true belief in natural rights must shun any focus on the specificity of historic origins.
As a supporter of the natural right tradition in political philosophy (at least as articulated by the mainly Protestant founders of the republic), I find it perplexing that Jeffrey attempts to set up a questionable disjunction between historic particularity on the one hand and belief in natural rights on the other. Thomas Jefferson's commitment to "Nature's God" did not deter him from recognizing that different peoples and cultures might interpret what is "natural" in distinct ways, with varying results in historic experience. If rights were truly self-evident to all, as Abraham Lincoln once astutely observed, there would never be agonizing debates over their meaning! Natural rights, in short, still presuppose strong historic antecedents which are unique to particular civilizations.
As Gottfried persuasively showed in his study, the postwar Right attempted to project the anti-relativist biases of the Cold War and post-Cold War periods upon the founding tradition, ignoring the historic context. Mr. Jeffrey's review is only the latest (and unintended) confirmation of Gottfried's thesis.
Trinity Western University
Langley, British Columbia
Douglas A. Jeffrey replies:
I agree with Grant Havers almost to the point of wondering why either of us bothers. Yes, the American Founding required certain preconditions, and those preconditions can be usefully identified through the study of history. Yes, comprehending self-evident truths requires understanding the definitions of their terms, which requires in turn a certain kind of education. But these were not the arguments of Gottfried's book; nor did I dispute them in my review.
Perhaps at the end of his letter Havers is suggesting that all understanding is bias, since history rather than nature is its ultimate basis. That at least would explain why he took time to write. But then why wouldn't he just say so? And of course no notion could have been more foreign to the (yes, mostly Protestant) American Founders with whose natural rights doctrine he professes to agree.